Eat, pray, live (God's place in one writer's life)
Malachi and Jerusha flew into New York from Tel Aviv this morning, weary but thrilled after a few days wandering the streets, seeing the sights, and hitting the holy hookah bars of Jerusalem.
"Mom," said Malachi, "it was Jesus and Jew stuff all over the place. You would have been bawling the whole time."
It's true. I'm sentimental when it comes to the traditions of Judaism and the teachings of Jesus, my Rabbi, who tried so hard -- and died so hard -- trying to tell us one thing: Love one another. Unable to find an organized religion that doesn't make exceptions to that golden rule, I've invented my own sincere but certainly flawed brand -- Jewbuddhistianity -- and developed a quirky little set of rituals over the years.
Robert Wright's fascinating new book The Evolution of God begins with this:
The Chukchee, a people indigenous to Siberia, had their own special way of dealing with unruly winds. A Chukchee man would chant, “Western Wind, look here! Look down on my buttocks. We are going to give you some fat. Cease blowing!” The nineteenth-century European visitor who reported this ritual described it as follows: “The man pronouncing the incantation lets his breeches fall down, and bucks leeward, exposing his bare buttocks to the wind. At every word he claps his hands.”
My own rituals aren't as literally embarrassing, but probably appear almost as odd to casual observers. They make sense to me, however, and they do what rituals are supposed to do (contrary to the "do this or get smited" orthodoxy that basically employs ritual as crowd control), and they're an important part of my writing life.
Some rituals calm me, the way a child is calmed by the silky edge on a flannel security blanket. Whenever I FedEx anything -- starting fifteen years ago with queries and now proposals, finished manuscripts, and galleys -- I kiss the package, press it to my forehead, and say, "God's hand." Acknowledging this moment of letting go keeps me from obsessing over what the recipient is going to say or do about the enclosed material. Whatever their response, I know I'll be all right, because I believe in both the benevolent slipstream of the universe and in my own ability to navigate whatever whitewater is ahead. The Tao te Ching says, "Do your work, then step back." This is one way I try to do that.
Other rituals function as a string-around-the-finger reminder of something that too often fades out of sight, out of mind. Whenever my husband or I receive a paycheck, the other person kisses the payee and says, "My breadwinner! Thank you for everything you do for our family." We say these words with joy, gratitude, and genuine eye contact. We both work incredibly hard, and it feels good to remember why we do what we do. My checks tend to be a lot bigger than Gary's but are way fewer and far between. I relish hearing those words from the ol' Bear, and my response is a silent prayer of gratitude for one of the most potent assets any artist can have: a solidly supportive life mate. It takes serious fortitude to stay married to a writer. I'd like to think I could have made it without him, but I can't imagine how, and I know I wouldn't have been a fraction as happy.
I believe in prayer, a concerted focus of good will, so every night for the last several months, I've been lighting a candle for one of my critique partners with the plea, "God of Abraham, you gave water to Hagar in the wilderness. Please send this worthy woman a literary agent." Sometimes there's not much else you can do in the face of the inequities of this business. My friend is a wonderfully talented author -- as she keeps hearing from the agents who keep requesting manuscripts and loving what they see, but for reasons I truly can't fathom, keep turning out close but no cigar. If there was something more concrete I could do to help her, I would. If nothing else, I hope the ritual makes her feel loved and believed in.
I have several little rituals that physically anchor me to an intangible belief I can't afford to drift away from. It used to be when I'd do a speaking gig or face an important meeting, after I did my makeup, I'd look at myself disdainfully and say, "Why am I here?" When I realized the undermining and stupid effect of that habit -- which had become an involuntary little ritual -- I gave myself a spiritual slap upside the head and purposely replaced it with something positive and powerful. Now before I walk out of the hotel room, I face myself in the mirror and say, "Because I'm JONI FUCKING RODGERS. That's why." And then I add a heartfelt "Fwayaweh!" or "Tawanda!" or something like that. If we don't believe in ourselves with what Colleen calls the "kernel of arrogance", how are we supposed to get up in the morning and take the slings and arrows of the biz? I am who I am. I do what I do. God's hand is on me. Screw the naysayers. Amen.
The writing life -- and any life, I would hope -- is a continuing cycle of genesis and revelations with a rich collection of poetry and stories in between. Faith in some form is an integral part of the journey. Anyone else care to share their writing rituals? I'd love to hear from you so I don't feel like a big Chuckchee with my bare fanny in the breeze.
Meanwhile, may the Lord make his face to shine upon you.
(Click here to read more from "The Primordial Faith" and other excerpts from The Evolution of God on Robert Wright's website.)